Whenever you get fed up with what this celebrity or that neighbor has to say about things, no matter how obnoxious or crass that opinion might be, you should remind yourself also to be thankful that you live in a nation in which those words can be uttered freely.
Freedom of speech doesn’t come without responsibility and repercussions. The Dixie Chicks were free to say they were embarrassed by then U.S. President George W. Bush, and radio stations were equally free to play or to not play their music. Chick-fil-A’s Dan Cathy responded to a question regarding gay marriage and when he said he opposed it, those who agreed with Cathy showed up in droves at his company’s restaurants to show their support and those who support same-sex marriage protested his position. Among those were the owners of the Muppets, who ended their business relationship with Cathy, an execising free speech that may end up costing the Jim Henson Company if Cathy supporters decide to not buy Muppet toys and videos this coming holiday season.
And other laws can be violated that complicates the exercising of free speech. For instance, a number of years ago, protesters came to Montezuma just north of Americus in an attempt to stop a “nuclear train” that was reportedly carrying nuclear weapons material to the coast. The protesters fell limp on the tracks, were picked up by law enforcement officials and were carted off to jail for the night.
When exercising speech crosses a line like that, however, the punishment should fit the situation. That’s what makes the sentencing that came down last week in a Russia court unacceptable.
What happened was this: A punk band of feminist rockers known as Pussy Riot decided in March to protest what they said was the Russian Orthodox Church’s support of President Vladimir Putin, an alliance that exemplifies the wisdom of separating church and state.
They did this by disrupting a service at Moscow’s main cathedral with an impromptu performance that included dancing and singing a “punk prayer” in which they asked the Virgin Mary to deliver Russia from Putin.
First, regardless of how just you feel your cause is, the interruption of a worship service like that is inexcusable. They deserved to be punished for taking such an ill-advised approach.
But they did not deserve to be sentenced to two years in prison. Time already served and some community service would have been more than sufficient. The punishment of two years in prison doesn’t match the crime.
What this sentence has done, however, is it has further cemented the Russian government’s oppressive image. It’s no surprise either. Putin wouldn’t allow a sentence that made him look weak. In fact, Russia has been busy lately passing laws designed to quell free speech. Taking part in an unauthorized demonstration used to bring down a fine that was the equivalent of about $60. Now it costs the Russian demonstrator the equivalent of $9,000. And any non-government organizations that engage in political activity (figuring out whether something is a “political activity,” by the way, is guesswork under the fuzzy definition used by the Russian government to give it as much law enforcement flexibility as possible) and also get funding from outside Russia must register as “foreign agents,” which places those organizations in the precarious position of being particularly vulnerable to accusations of espionage.
The positive that’s come out of the sentences imposed on bandmates Nadezhda Tolokonnikova, Maria Alekhina and Yekaterina Samutsevich is it has placed Russia’s crackdown on dissent on the world’s radar. And it has sparked rallies by opposition partisans.
It’s clear there is a growing segment of Russia’s population that craves the right to speak freely, openly and critically without fear of government retaliation. Those of us who already enjoy that freedom should be thankful — and hopeful that those who have been denied it will one day be able share this great freedom with us.